Yet another case of campus discrimination

Michelle Barreto Contributor
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Apparently pro-life groups are not welcome on certain places on Duke University’s campus.

Surprised? We were too. As part of ‘Week for Life’ that occurred on Duke’s campus March 15-19, Duke Students for Life requested to use a space inside of the university-funded Women’s Center. For the event, “Discussion with a Duke Mother” we invited a student mother to speak about motherhood and the challenges of being an undergraduate mom. The space was initially reserved, but when the Week for Life began, the Women’s Center canceled our space request.

When asked for an explanation, Women’s Center staffer Martin Liccardo said that because the event was associated with the Week for Life and Duke Students for Life, the event could not be held at the Women’s Center.

It is unacceptable that a university-funded Women’s Center that advertises itself as promoting a “campus culture that ensures the full participation and agency of women students,” does not allow a group sponsoring a conversation about motherhood into their space. If Liccardo’s defense was intended to be sincere or convincing, it came across quite differently—quite frankly, as censorship.

“We had a very strong reaction from students in general who use our space who said this was something that was upsetting and not OK,” Liccardo told us when we confronted him about the abrupt cancellation. “So based on that, we said we are going to respond to this and stop the program.”

He then admitted that he never personally saw or attended any of our events or displays on campus. Our “Week for Life” consisted of presenting abortion statistics, fetal development displays, and discussions on motherhood and life to the campus at large. Liccardo explained that Duke students were uncomfortable with Students for Life using the Women’s Center space because they were “traumatized” by the fetal development pictures we displayed on a high-traffic area of campus.

However the pictures are ultrasounds that mothers typically ask to see during pregnancies. It is unreasonable that we were turned away from the Women’s Center because we presented factual information and pictures of human development.

Even though Liccardo said that the Women’s Center wants “women to have access to information and resources” about reproductive rights, we found it enlightening that in his view, “a picture of a fetal development does not have a place in [the Women’s Center].” How sad that competing ideas at liberal arts universities are not accepted by those who claim to be open minded.
Regardless, the event we wanted to hold at the Duke’s Women’s Center had nothing to do with fetal development or abortion. It was a conversation about celebrating and discussing the challenges of motherhood. But Liccardo also accused Duke Students for Life of attempting to promote a political agenda with its “Duke Mother” event.

“A mothering discussion during Week for Life that to me, well I should not even say to me but to the students we actually encounter, had a smack of a political agenda,” he explained.

It is strange that he accused us of having a “political agenda” when he readily admitted that “philosophically [they] are a center that is not opposed to abortion.”

So while Duke Students for Life is not welcome at the Women’s Center at Duke because it has a specific agenda, not only does the Women’s Center advise the Students for Choice student group, but they invite and host pro-choice speakers like Jessica Valenti who has worked for Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice of America. According to Liccardo, the Women’s Center has never hosted a pro-life speaker for the three years he has been working there.

It is inappropriate for a University funded center to have an unwritten pro-choice philosophy on abortion and turn away groups who think differently. Their mission statement clearly states they “ascribe to a broadly defined, fluctuating and inclusive feminist ideology that welcomes discordant viewpoints from varied experiences.” This is ironic because their own view of feminism and women’s issues is narrow and discriminatory.

We applaud the Duke’s Women’s Center for the role it plays in increasing awareness about gender violence on Duke’s campus. But we find this incident deplorable and believe that the center is falsely advertised. Unless the Women‘s Center changes their discriminatory agenda and truly becomes a welcoming place for all women with differing viewpoints to have equal access to their space, the center’s operations should be looked into by university administration.

This is the kind of discrimination that is occurring at Duke. Imagine what could be occurring at other college campuses across the United States.

UPDATE, MARCH 30, 2010: The Women’s Center admitted that mistakes were made, apologized, and are taking steps to ensure this never happens again. This is a victory for free speech and expression at Duke University. I will continue to support the pro-life movement, and I am glad Duke has remained a place where different perspectives and point of views are respected, accepted and offered the same opportunities.

Michelle Barreto is a sophomore undergraduate at Duke University majoring in Political Science and receiving a Certificate in Policy Journalism and Media Studies. She is the president of Duke Students for Life.